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India starts work on first bullet train
Publication Date : 09-07-2014
India will begin work on its first bullet train, and aims to make its railway system the world's largest freight carrier.
Presenting its first railway budget yesterday, the new government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi said it would allow foreign investment and private players in one of the world's largest rail systems to upgrade infrastructure and push growth - key election promises of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party.
Railway minister Sadananda Gowda told parliament the bullet train would connect Mumbai with Ahmedabad, the commercial capital of Modi's home state of Gujarat.
He did not set any deadline for the project, but said it would cost about 600 billion rupees (US$10.1 billion).
Railway officials said the project, first conceived in 2006, would take about five years to complete and the train would run at a speed of about 300 kmh on a nearly 550km dedicated line.
"It is the wish and dream of every Indian that India runs a bullet train as early as possible," Gowda said.
He also said the government would embark on an ambitious plan for a 6,000km network of high-speed rail, connecting major metros and growth centres.
It is expected to cost 9 trillion rupees ($150.4 billion), he said, but the system was starved of funds due to "mismanagement and apathy" over the years.
Growth of the railway sector depends heavily on availability of funds for investment in rail infrastructure.
Internal revenue sources and government funding are insufficient to meet the requirement.
Hence, the railways ministry is seeking cabinet approval to allow FDI in the rail sector."
Foreign investors would, however, not be allowed to operate trains, he added.
The 161-year-old Indian Railways carries more than 23 million passengers a day and a billion tonnes of freight a year, and is referred to as the lifeline of the nation.
But the state-run monopoly has become a creaky system as successive governments have used it to curry political favours, refused to raise fares as required to generate funds and neglected to invest in its modernisation.
The advent of budget airlines in the last decade has also taken away a section of high-end train passengers and regular accidents have dented its safety record.
Gowda promised to change all that and said the private sector would be roped into public-private partnerships (PPPs) for most tasks.
These include everything from pedestrian bridges at stations and better food on trains to Wi-Fi Internet access at some stations and on certain trains.
Indian Railways has joined a select club of railways of China, Russia and the United States in carrying more than one billion tonnes of freight a year and now aims to become the largest in the world, Gowda said.
Modi, who during his election campaign mentioned his own background as someone who sold tea at railway stations, said the budget "shows where we want to take the railways and at the same time where we want to take India through the railways".
But some leaders of the opposition Congress saw it as a statement of intent to privatise the railways.
Industry leaders sounded positive. "The railways minister has tried to put the railways back on track and attempted a balance between commercial and social obligations," Sidharth Birla, president of the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry, said in a statement.
"We welcome the proposal for financing a bulk of future projects through PPP route that will help overcome the constraint of low investment, enhance connectivity and accelerate the process of modernisation."
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